Who Lost Michael Isikoff?

One of the enduring mysteries of the Clinton sex scandals is why the preeminent reporter on the beat, Michael Isikoff, was made to feel so unwelcome at the Washington Post that he jumped to Newsweek. Now Isikoff has published a book, Uncovering Clinton, about his role in reporting on Paula Jones and Monica Lewinsky. (Click here for a dissenting take on the book by one of Isikoff’s subjects, Lucianne Goldberg.) It’s quite good, if you can stomach slogging through the gruesome details one more time; and unlike most other Flytrap accounts, it is full of detail but is at the same time rigorously fair-minded. (Isikoff is one of the few experts on Clinton’s sex life who is motivated not by Clinton-hatred but by sincerely distinterested reportorial zeal.)

In the book, Isikoff paints an endearing and convincing portrait of himself as a hard-charging reporter who is miserably ham-handed when it comes to office politics. According to Isikoff, things turned sour for him at the Post while he was working with several other reporters on the Paula Jones story. Isikoff had concluded that his editors “couldn’t make up their minds what precisely they wanted.” He discussed with Charlie Shepard, another Post reporter on the story, the possibility of writing about Jones for the paper’s “Style” section, or its Sunday magazine, in the form of an essay about “the difficulties in writing about such issues.” (Isikoff concedes now that this was “a foolish idea.”) Shepard and Isikoff discussed the essay option with Shepard’s editor, Steve Luxemberg. Isikoff then told his own editor, Marilyn Thompson, “a bit too brusquely,” about the conversation. Thompson, figuring she “was being cut out of the process,” went ballistic and complained to her superiors, national editor Karen DeYoung and deputy national editor Fred Barbash. “Barbash and I had clashed repeatedly over the past year,” Isikoff writes, “and he was sick of me.” Barbash summoned Isikoff to his office and shouted: “What do you think you’re doing, Isikoff, operating sua sponte?” (“Barbash was a former Supreme Court reporter,” Isikoff explains, and “liked to use Latinisms.” When Isikoff asked what sua sponte meant, Barbash explained: “It means acting on your own, acting like a freelancer.”) According to Isikoff, Barbash accused him of shopping his story around the newsroom. “Before long, I was shouting back at him,” Isikoff writes. “I called him a ‘fucking asshole.’ He ordered me out of his office. I stayed where I was. For a moment, we were eyeball to eyeball …” Barbash, Isikoff writes, went to the managing editor, Bob Kaiser, and demanded he be fired “or at least be asked to find another job.” An internal inquiry was ordered up, and Isikoff was suspended for two weeks for “insubordination.” During the suspension, Isikoff put out feelers to Newsweek, which hired him not long after.

This is not an account that is terribly flattering to the Post. Can it really be true that the paper let a talented reporter go simply because he failed to respect the turf consciousness of its editors?

Chatterbox decided to check in with Barbash to get his side of the story. (Awkwardly, Chatterbox is friends with both Isikoff and Barbash.) Barbash says it isn’t true that the Post editors “couldn’t make up their minds what precisely they wanted.” According to Barbash, “We knew what we wanted, and it wasn’t there.” The problem, Barbash explains, was that “we couldn’t vouch for the truth” of what happened between Clinton and Jones. But couldn’t one say the same thing today? “We’re a little closer today,” Barbash says.

Barbash also says Isikoff’s sin was not violating bureaucratic turf lines at the Post; it was blabbing about a highly sensitive story, not all of whose details had been reported by Isikoff himself, to someone–Luxemberg–who was not authorized to know about it. To Chatterbox, this sounds a bit trumped-up. Luxemberg was and is one of the most respected editors at the Post, and his job at the time was essentially running (under Bob Woodward) the Post’s investigative staff. It’s hard to believe that anyone at the Post would consider Luxemberg a security risk.

Barbash says the sua sponte remark was a joke. Also, Isikoff hadn’t been driving him crazy; rather, Barbash was concerned “about a staffer driving one of my editors [i.e., Marilyn Thompson] to distraction.” Finally, Barbash says, he did not seek Isikoff’s dismissal after the “fucking asshole” incident; he merely recommended that Isikoff be disciplined. Sometime later, Barbash says, he suggested Isikoff be encouraged to look for work elsewhere.

Chatterbox isn’t going to try to resolve all these discrepancies, which seem fairly trivial. What’s clear is that Isikoff never shoved Barbash, as was widely reported at the time; that Isikoff obviously had some difficulty getting along with his bosses at the Post; and that the Post was foolish to let this minor incident lead to the departure of one of its most talented reporters.

–Timothy Noah